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Losing Out on a Hot Commodity

Wonderful agent Kristin Nelson took on an interesting topic a few months ago on her blog. She talked about feeling like some of her recent offers of representation have felt more like entries into a bidding war. I’ve felt the same way, as I mentioned in a post last week. The last six months, when I’ve offered rep, the author almost always already had other interest or got other interest after my offer. (I read very quickly when I’m interested and tend to be the first to offer. This is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.) Most of the contests I’ve been involved in have been me and two, three, sometimes even five or six other agents. All fighting for the same happy-but-overwhelmed author.

Sounds like a dream scenario, right? Well, not for the agent, obviously, but not for the author, either. They’re stuck making a very important business decision between people who all love their book, who are all good at their jobs, and who are all trying to be persuasive. It’s stressful (I say that having been on the writer end of this situation myself in the past, with six offers blurring on the table in front of me).

I’ve been in this situation a handful times in the last six months or so. I recently saw two of the books I’d offered on announced as sales in Publisher’s Marketplace, under other agents’ names. I was happy for the authors and I love the books, obviously, but gosh darn, I sure wish I could’ve been the happy agent listing those deals. I’m not whining about losing out on these manuscripts at all, and it’s not sour grapes. The author went with the best fit for them and that, at the end of the day, is the best possible thing for everyone involved. The clients I get and the books I sell all happen for a reason. And I do genuinely mean it when I tell the authors who go elsewhere that I look forward to reading about a huge sale in PM.

But for me, there are other issues at play here, other than, “Gee, I wish I’d gotten that one!” Being the first to offer (usually) and being myself and losing makes me wonder what types of things the other agents are saying that tip the scales in their favor. The last thing I want to do is to disparage any of my brilliant and hard-working agent colleagues, at my agency and outside of it. But there are different agenting styles, and I wonder if my particular agenting style isn’t serving me in this regard. Follow my train of thought a moment…

I pride myself on being a very realistic person. In my line of work, I do a lot of “managing expectations” and I practice a lot of cautious optimism. Lots of writers think they have the next HARRY POTTER meets TWILIGHT on their hard drives. Runaway bestsellers like that are very rare, and they can’t be manufactured. Of course I want all of my clients to do well and to make a living at their writing. And I’d love a runaway bestseller (who wouldn’t!). But I’m also realistic (some might say skeptical).

When I offer representation, I don’t make big promises. Of course I love the book. And of course I think I can sell it to a great editor. And of course I’m an editorial agent with ideas for how the manuscript could be even stronger. Otherwise, I would have no business offering representation. It isn’t my job to gush over a book or tell the author how brilliant they are (though I often do). It’s my job to sell that book. So if I think I can do my job, I offer representation. But I also caution the writer that there are no guarantees. And that agents aren’t a magic bullet. Besides, I offer for the long term. I’d love to sell the first book but, if it doesn’t happen to sell, I know there will be another manuscript, or another, to try with. I’m a very longview type of person, which plays into my agenting style.

What I don’t do is offer the author any sure bets, tantalizing dreams of big sales or tasty foreign rights possibilities. “This’ll be a movie, dahling, starring Robert Pattison. I’m already casting it in my head!” is a very LA way to go about the whole agent stereotype (sorry, LA!), and it’s really not my style. I obviously want all of that and more for my clients but I wouldn’t talk big and promise even bigger. I’m much less “wining and dining” and much more “let’s work together to create something irresistible to editors.”

There’s also, of course, the issue of track record. I’m a newer agent. I have six sales listed on Publisher’s Marketplace. Though that’s not a comprehensive view of my sales, that’s the only thing writers can check. The first books I sold won’t be out for another nine months or so. I don’t have years of track record or bestseller clients to woo with… yet. And I’m very conscious that in a “beauty contest” (as we call these competitive situations), these things really do weigh in. (See my pro’s and con’s of newer vs. more established agents post for more on this.)

What’s the reason for this recent trend of multiple offers, then? Or for those times when it didn’t go my way? (Luckily, I’ve offered and won many, many more times than this, and I’m thrilled for the clients I do have.) I don’t know. But I’m really curious. As the comments on Kristin’s post mention, it could be an issue of agents hopping on the bandwagon when they hear about an offer. I have to admit, when someone comes to me and says they have an offer of representation, my interest is definitely piqued and I read fast to see if I want to throw my hat into the ring. I want a chance at the fantastic manuscript, too! But it seems like every offer has competition these days. I wonder why that is and, I have to admit, I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see how other agents are offering representation.

What would you all prefer in your offer of representation (other than, you know, getting that offer in the first place)? Big, exciting promises or my preferred brand of “cautious optimism”? Is the offer phone call the time to really rip out all the stops and get the writer hyped up or is it a frank chat about the business, the market, and how this manuscript will into the big picture?

This whole issue is fascinating! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Jen’s avatar

    My agent didn’t promise me pie in the sky, nor did I want that. Frankly, if a prospective agent said, “This is going to be bigger than TWILIGHT!” or “I can get you a seven-figure advance for this!” I would be suspicious. We don’t expect a 100% guarantee.
    But we do need enthusiasm and optimism, a strong belief that this ms. will sell, and that the agent knows where to take it and how to pitch it.
    And rather than saying, “You know, we may not be able to sell this,” what is probably better for the author to know is: “Whether or not we sell this one, I’m definitely interested in other work from you; I want to help you build a career.” I think most authors want to feel that the agent is investing in a career, not just one ms.

  2. Davalynn Spencer’s avatar

    I just found your blog and I’m enjoying your “frank chat” approach. So in answer to your question of what an author prefers, frank chat or hyped-up phone call, give me the frank chat any day. There is already more than enough hype out there; I’ll stick with the real deal.

    Also, what a great quote in your comments about a writer’s day job: “When you have all day to do something, you usually figure out a way to take all day to do it.” Very well put. And it explains why I was a successful newspaper reporter for six years. I DID’NT have all day to write the stories (they call it deadline for a reason), and I got it done. Won awards, yada, yada. It also explains how I taught middle school full time and managed to write two books (one an unsold middle-grade novel). And I’m beginning to think it’s distantly related to the 20/80 rule: 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. In other words, the doers do. Especially when they don’t have quite enough time.

    Thanks for a great blog.

  3. Suzanne’s avatar

    As a writer, I tend to think of agents as powerful and invulnerable, so it’s nice to know that you all are human. 🙂

    I appreciate cautious optimism, but what I most want in an agent is someone who loves and gets my work.

  4. claudine’s avatar

    I’m enjoying your blog and especially this post. As an author with several as-yet-unpublished books (well, okay, unfinished too), I would be much more comfortable with someone who does not make overblown promises to me. I don’t even want a huge advance that I need to live up to.


  5. Suzie’s avatar

    I dislike hype. I dislike false expectation. I’d take honesty and reality over a promises-filled, overblown song and dance any day.

    Unless there’s actual singing and dancing. I have my weaknesses.

    There are a few things that would tilt me in favor of one agent over others:

    1) Proven competency in the field. I don’t need someone who’s had a zillion sales, but I need to know they can get my book in the hands of the appropriate editors and represent my novel admirably. Which publishing houses might be best to pursue? Do they have any editors in mind? Plans. Strategies. Analysis.

    2) Gives excellent–not good, but *excellent*–editorial notes which show a sharp grasp on writing craft. Not talking about line editing; I mean development of story structure, tension building, character arcs etc. I want to write as well as I can and my ideal agent would be adept in the foundational elements. It’s my job to write the novel, of course, but in discussing the writing, we need to be on the same page and speak the same lingo. Beautiful book people together as one.

    3) I’d need to click with them, personality-wise. For instance, is the agent’s taste in books similar enough to mine? One can never be sure about this, but having worked many years in a bookstore, I know there’s a certain consistency in the types of people who read types of books. I usually get along with people who like what I like. Also, I write the kind of book I’d enjoy reading. I want to be sure my agent would enjoy it too.

    Basically, a clever agent with guts and confidence who’s still professional and likable. If that comes across when I communicate with an agent, I would be likely to place them high on my list, were I fortunate enough to be in such a situation.

    This is assuming all these criteria wouldn’t fly away and be free, leaving me with a phone in my hand and no memory. I should make a list once I start submitting, just in case. Phone calls are so nebulous.

  6. Michael Winchell’s avatar

    This post is something near and dear to my heart. I was fortunate enough to have 8 offers of rep from agents, and what you mention about the stress involved is very true. It started with one offer, then another an hour later, and another 2 offers the next couple days. Then, on the day before my “deadline,” I received a whopping 4 more offers. I was forced to push my deadline back a day, and took the day to consider all 8 agents. I contacted the agents and told them I needed that day to think, and every agent sent me a long email “pitching” him or herself again. Don’t get me wrong, I was not whining about my situation, but it was very tough to take everything in.

    In the end, I made the right choice for me. The one that felt right. It was difficult to contact the other agents and let them know I was going with someone else, especially the first to offer. However, the things that pushed me toward that one agent were: (1) her 25+ years of expertise in the pub business, (2) her strong editorial background (worked with idols of mine, and I thought she could help me improve with every book), (3) she was realistic and didn’t promise the moon (when an agent promised a six-figure deal, I crossed them off because it told me they were painting a picture they couldn’t promise to paint), (4) my conversations with her just felt “right” to me, and (5) she specializes in MG/YA.

    With my manuscript now out with editors for a couple days (subbed 2 days ago), I feel like she helped me craft a stronger story, and I feel her contacts will help match me with the right ed/publisher.

  7. Heather’s avatar

    I have to agree with most of the other responses – if an agent promised me anything beyond his/her undying enthusiasm, encouragement, and overall agently support, I’d cross him or her right off the list.

    I signed with an agent after giving her an exclusive the day I finished my book (she had already requested a revise and resubmit on another book). While she’s knowledgeable and a good friend, what was lacking for me was enthusiasm and a common vision for the book. We parted ways a couple months later.

    I wound up with several offers for representation shortly thereafter and man, that was terrifying. Everyone had a completely different vision! That helped me narrow things down some, so I went through and thought about each individual agent’s strengths.

    One in particular sounded like a total kindred spirit and talked about how we’d have awesome three-hour conversations over a bottle of wine about the psychology of my characters (I’m a psych major – complex characters are very important to me). Her vision for the book and my career were fabulous. She’s also an industry giant, so I thought, score!! This is perfect!

    But then I got to thinking about the lesser known agent on my list who was the first to offer. She has this eerie gift for teasing out the tiniest plot details I skim over that completely flesh out my worlds, which is a weakness of mine. I hang up after our conversations in shock most of the time. How could I have missed such-and-such element?? OMG – do you know what this means?! It’s hilarious.

    Her strengths compliment my weaknesses, she reps everything I write (the other didn’t), her enthusiasm is unmatched, and we achieved agent-author mind meld almost immediately. She’s perfect for me.

    So if I had to make a list of things to consider when choosing between multiple agents, it would go in this order:

    Industry reputation
    Vision for your career (including genres, voice, POVs, etc)
    Vision for the book
    Strengths and weaknesses of the agent contrasted with your own

    Would I have been in excellent hands with the other agents on my short list? Totally. Would my book be what it is right now? Nope. I love what my agent teased out of the plot and what we’re going on submissions with. In the end, that’s all I can ask for.

  8. Sheryl Scarborough’s avatar

    Definitely enthusiasm…

  9. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    I don’t have unrealistic expectations of author grandeur. I know, first hand, the percentage of super success rate(or not). I just want an agent.

  10. Helene’s avatar

    I would have been dubious of any agent who promised me movie deals and NYTimes best seller lists. When I signed, I signed with an agent who told me that my book made her cry and there was no greater compliment. It touched her as a reader and I knew then that she would be the right advocate for my work. She spoke about my characters in the same way I did, as if she knew them and totally understood who they were. We’re out on sub now and I know that, whatever happens, that I’m working alongside someone who believes in the story I wanted to tell.

  11. Katie’s avatar

    If and when I look for an agent, I would want someone who is realistic. However, I also want someone who will help me go above and beyond.

    I don’t want an agent to be happy with whatever they can get, because they don’t think they can get anything else. I want an agent who will put just as much effort into finding a publisher as I did in writing the manuscript. That is the only thing I see wrong with the pessimistic approach.

    If you are too pessimistic then you don’t try to reach for those dreams that are amongst the stars; and if you don’t reach for them, then you can never attain them.

  12. Holly Abston’s avatar

    I would much prefer to have an honest, realistic relationship with an honest and realistic agent! My goal would not be for a personal ego boost. I want real success. So, I want real constructive input. I would not want to be built up into a frenzie only to be disappointed at reality! I would appreciate your approach.

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